Casino operators' attempts to soften the blow of Macau's slowdown are starting to show results and optimists are hoping the worst may now be history. While no one expects the industry to return to the 50 to 60 per cent growth rates it experienced a year ago at the height of the boom, analysts are starting to wonder whether the market's free fall finally found a bottom in the fourth quarter. Casino revenue declined for a third quarter in the three months to December and fell 2.5 per cent from a year earlier for its first annual contraction in at least three years. But operators were quick to respond by slashing costs, including pay cuts for at least 12,400 staff or 27 per cent of the 45,621 people officially employed in Macau's gaming industry, and at the same time preliminary indications for casino revenue in January and February have been positive. Now, halfway through the results reporting season, a clearer picture is emerging of who is best positioned to ride out the city's losing streak. The nature of Macau's downturn is lopsided, with casino operators more heavily reliant on VIP gamblers seeing the steepest slowdown in business volumes. The credit crunch has seen Macau's ubiquitous junket agents pull back on issuing credit to high rollers for fear of spiralling bad-debt loads. As a result, VIP casino revenue, which accounted for 67.8 per cent of the market last year, fell 7.52 per cent from a year ago to 15.61 billion patacas in the fourth quarter. That compares with positive growth of 8.2 per cent in the more profitable mass market during the same period. Melco Crown Entertainment's Crown Macau, which early last year ranked briefly as the world's busiest casino by high-roller wagers, saw net revenue fall 15.2 per cent from the third quarter and 50.9 per cent from its peak in the first quarter to US$225.8 million. Luxury resort Wynn Macau saw revenue fall 17.4 per cent from the previous quarter to US$392.2 million. The fall-off tracked a 17.3 per cent drop in bets placed by high rollers, which fell to US$11 billion from US$13.3 billion. On a per-table basis, casino revenue saw its worst full quarter since the resort opened in September 2006. Winnings per table averaged US$12,336 per day, still 60 per cent above the average in Macau but down 18.5 per cent from the property's previous quarter. By contrast, average daily winnings per table at the more mass market focused Venetian declined only 8.2 per cent from the previous quarter, while the day-tripper-oriented Sands actually saw positive growth of 8.3 per cent. Looking ahead, analysts remain hopeful that a relaxation of Beijing's nine-month-long crackdown on mainland visitation to Macau may provide a boost. 'The recent meeting between Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province has resulted in the recommendation that visa restrictions get lifted in the near term,' Jeffries and Co gaming analyst Larry Klatzkin wrote last week in a research note. 'We believe China would acquiesce, which would greatly benefit all market operators.' New developments at the company level could have an even deeper impact on performance and changes in market share. Melco Crown is preparing to open its US$2.1 billion, 1,200-room City of Dreams resort on Cotai in phases beginning in June. While 140 of the resort's 550 gaming tables will be focused on VIP players, the complex marks the company's first major foray into the mass market and the second mega-resort to open on Cotai following the 3,000-room Venetian's August 2007 launch.